First Person

The Bittersweet End

Collin Lawrence is a former — and now present again! — New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

When I walked into school on Thursday, June 24, 2010, I knew that my final two days at the Brooklyn Arts Academy were not going to be the glorious ones I’d imagined. Word had been sent out that morning from the administration that no teacher would be allowed to leave the building without the permission of the payroll secretary, and that we’d no longer be allowed to stream world cup games in our classrooms. It was clear that the principal had not reacted kindly to the letter that we had written him the day before, outlining our concerns about being asked to sign documents acknowledging error in recording student attendance. We were being punished.

There was a meeting for returning teachers held at 10 a.m. I did not attend, but the teachers who did reported that the principal berated them. I was told that he walked in, held up the letter, and said it had made him “sick to his stomach.” He had taken particular exception to the first line of the letter, which spoke of the “unified staff of [the Brooklyn Arts Academy].” He said that, since he and the office workers were also part of the staff, the letter did not speak for everyone. He also said that he’d been planning to have an end-of-year celebration for the teachers, but that now he couldn’t do it. And he said that the Brooklyn Arts Academy would never be the kind of school he hoped it would be if teachers wrote letters like this. Then he walked out, leaving the assistant principal to finish the meeting with the stunned teachers. She gave the teachers an assignment to write a 2-4 page reflection about how they might integrate “key cognitive strategies” into their curriculum for the next year. The deadline was 3 p.m.

Those of us milling about got the lowdown as soon as the meeting was dismissed. All of us, teachers who were leaving and teachers who were returning, decided to have another meeting and see if we could think of any way to defuse the situation. We elected to call the network leader, essentially the supervisor of our principal, and ask him to mediate a conversation for us (the principal had outright rejected our request for a group meeting to address the attendance issue, saying instead that he’d be happy to meet with teachers as individuals). This was the same network leader who’d come to our first staff meeting of the school year and told us to communicate our concerns to our principal rather than taking out our frustrations in other ways (i.e. the learning environment surveys).

When we heard back from him, he essentially hung us out to dry. He told us that, since we’d gone to him without first informing our principal, it showed we weren’t sincere in our desire to improve communication in the building and therefore he wouldn’t help us. So there was nothing left to do. We signed the forms or not based on the best attendance records we had available and turned them in. I never heard anything more about it.

I received my end-of-year-review that day, but unlike in years past I got no feedback about my performance. The evaluation form was delivered to me by one of the assistant principals, who had nothing to say other than “sign here.” (I received an S rating, as did almost everyone else except the dean, who was given an unsatisfactory rating on the basis of poor attendance. When he told the principal that he had doctor’s notes, the principal reportedly replied, “I don’t care if you had cancer, it is principal’s discretion.”)

Near the end of that day, I went to find one of my colleagues who’d become my best friend on the staff over the years. She and I had started teaching at the Brooklyn Arts Academy at the same time four years ago, and were the only two remaining teachers from that year. This would be the last time I’d see her for a long time, as I was taking a personal day the next day (Friday) and she was leaving for a trip to Southeast Asia that weekend and would miss the final day (Monday). I hugged her goodbye, and she gave me a card and actually cried. We’d been through so much together, and it was unbelievable to me that it was ending like this. I was moved by her tears, which I don’t think were a response to present events but a genuine outpouring of emotion for the end of a bond we’d formed through this crazy, shared experience.

That weekend I flew to Chicago and was the best man in my twin brother’s wedding. During the day on Friday, before rehearsal, I jumped online and checked in with my colleagues back at the school. They reported that “it’s like a ghost town here” and that the principal wasn’t even around. So I didn’t miss much.

I returned Monday morning, the day of graduation and my final day at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, to a similarly empty-feeling school. On this day last year, the administrators had held a breakfast for the staff, and given cards and gifts to the teachers that were leaving. But I received no such recognition.

By 10 a.m., I had not heard a word from an administrator other than a “good morning” from one of the APs. The secretary came by to give me a new stack of attendance documents to sign. I was just sitting in a classroom, waiting around until it was time to go to graduation. The other AP did come by and said “good luck” to me and two other teachers who were leaving. She told us she was “sad” on that day. She noticeably did not say “thank you” to us for the work we’d put into building the school. I never saw the principal in the building, and never had any parting words with him.

I had written my own thank you notes for each and every one of the secretaries and members of the support staff who’d helped me out in various ways over the years, and so went around and said my own goodbyes. I also sent out an email to the entire staff, requesting that they come out for a post-graduation get-together. In this email, I wrote, “it has been a meaningful four years for me here and I would like to properly celebrate with everyone who has been a part of that. If I don’t get a chance to personally talk to you, know that I have enjoyed being a member of this staff and that I wish everyone the best of luck in the future. ”

The administrators left to set up for graduation around 11:30 a.m. and after that we were just in the building killing time. I eventually left to go out to lunch with a few of my colleagues and then we headed to the graduation venue.  An email I wrote the next day to my colleague who’d been absent (the one who cried on Thursday afternoon) describes the ceremony and captures my feelings at that time:

At graduation, [the principal] gave a speech about humility. It had nothing at all to do with the graduating class of seniors. He read an excerpt from James Baldwin that was over their heads. Other than that, though, graduation was nice. The choir and band performed. [One student] read a poem he’d written that included shout outs to many teachers and students (mine said something about “daily quizzes” in Lawrence’s class). [Another student] gave a speech. [The two music teachers] gave speeches. And the final performance was a song that was composed by [two students, a boyfriend and girlfriend] and performed by the choir along with [a few of the seniors] and a couple other boys who rapped while the choir sang behind them — it was actually really impressive.

I got to shake a lot of hands and take a lot of photos with the graduates, so that left me in a much better mood than beforehand. In the end, the students are the main reason we do what we do so it is more meaningful to receive positive feedback from them than our administration anyway.

That night, a colleague held an end-of-the-school-year party at his apartment. It would be the last time that I would see many of the teachers who’d become my friends over the last few years. The mood of the evening was a mix of incredulity at the absurdity of the final few days and euphoria for the end of an era (I wasn’t the only teacher leaving – the other three grade level team leaders were likewise moving on). We drank and were overly praiseworthy of one another, perhaps trying to compensate for lack of affirmation given by our administrators. I was buoyed by the kind words of my colleagues, for whom I’d become somewhat of a leader or spokesperson. They, at least, understood and appreciated how much of myself I’d poured into the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I stayed to the end. It felt like my party.

And so ended my career at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. After a long and intoxicating night, I slept in the next day. When I awoke, I felt fantastic. It was a new beginning. But it wasn’t going to be so easy to let go of the last four years. I needed time to process what it all meant. I knew that I wanted to write something.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.